Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted January 27, 2010  (This paper was pulbished in the British psychotherapy journal,  New Therapist, No. 52, 16-21. November-December, 2007.)

The theme of “boundaries” involves some related concepts that have significant practical applications not only in therapy, but in the maintenance of relationships in everyday life. This paper will discuss the benefits of explicitly identifying different kinds of boundaries and their  complementary dynamics, “access.”

For practical purposes, “boundary” is being used here to refer to the denial of attention or cooperation to another person. The term is best understood as being the opposite of the activity in which one seeks attention or cooperation, an activity I call “access.” For example, A may seek access to B for cooperation in tasks, sex, to be listened to, given advice, to take directions, tell a joke, for entertainment, join in another activity, etc. B may or may not agree with A’s request.

Frequently B does not exert boundary activity at all, and gives in, goes along. Or B may go along only half-heartedly, or passive-aggressively. This is not boundary-making, which should be imagined as a more explicit activity.

Beyond the actual interaction, there remains for many people an unconscious fear of either making boundaries with others or encountering boundaries made by others. In the first instance, the problem is how to say no without having the other hurt, rejected, or vengeful. The underlying assumption is that the other will react in an all-or-nothing fashion. While this is primarily a projection, it is also somewhat valid insofar as the pervasiveness of people not understanding the proper dynamics of boundary making. Finer discriminations need to be made.

In the second instance, a similar misunderstanding is possible: B (the person making the boundary) may be experienced by A (the person seeking access) as unyielding. “No” doesn’t just mean not now, or not in the exact form that you wish it, but is fantasized as meaning, “I don’t like you, I reject you, I don’t care about your needs or feelings, I don’t want to give you anything in any form at any time.” There’s that all-or-nothing thinking operating, the continuation of a childish mentality as applied to relationships.

Let it be noted that although many people may develop many parts of themselves to very refined and clever degrees, the interpersonal and emotional facets of the personality may remain fixated in that childish mode. Unless subject to conscious re-programming—something that many people are neither encouraged to do nor given actual guidance and opportunities to learn—i.e., it’s not part of the school curriculum and most parents don’t know how to do this—, then people may not learn this really rather vital interpersonal skill.

Applications in Therapy

Merely listening and interpreting should not constitute the whole of psychotherapy, but rather the process should include a wide range of interactions. There are times for quiet listening, and other times for more directed forms of questioning. There are also some times for brief instructions or the suggestion that the client read this or that book or article. In this spirit, some talking about boundaries and access can offer a most helpful set of categories that patients can use in their own lives—and I’ve been told that therapists find it equally beneficial in their own lives, too.

Since part of maturity involves the making of distinctions within categories that had not previously been differentiated, I think psychotherapy needs to include a measure of education. Teaching clients about boundaries and access offers them categories for thinking about certain dimensions of communications. Everyone does access and boundary maneuvers, but many do it unconsciously and clumsily, often with unfortunate results. Mis-communication is frequent.
Clients can be taught to negotiate with others in a more skilled fashion by using these categories.

The first principle is that yes and no, access and boundaries, really needs to be more specified for each occasion. The classical questions for writing, journalism, and other forms of communication apply here: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Whether one is seeking attention, advice, cooperation, help, affection, or something else, it is helpful to disclose a bit more at the outset. People seeking access should realize that the other person may not be consciously harboring the following concerns, but they are frequently operating:
  – Can you wait a while for it?
  – I need to take some time so you can warm up to the task?
  – I need more information about specifically what you want, also where, when, and maybe why. (Sometimes I don’t need an explanation of why! Don’t start with one!)
  – How much of a commitment are you seeking? What if I want to re-negotiate the agreement?

What we need to consciously register is the unspoken belief and agreement that being well-meaning should suffice, and that if there are good intentions on both sides, these matters magically work themselves out without any conscious attention. This is simplistic and misleading. It denies the reality that relationships require some degrees of conscious exercise of skill, diplomacy, and even courtesy. The inner questions, “Why does it need to be so difficult? Why do I have to work at it?” really betray a more childish thought: “I resent that life is complex and difficult.” (One of the reasons Scott Peck in the early 1980s began his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, with the line, “Life is difficult,” is that in fact most people have not accepted this fact deep in their hearts!)

As a result, there is a great deal of low-grade and sometimes more intense stress in people’s interpersonal relations. The underlying issues are neither recognized nor understood. The theme of boundaries and access offers a useful grid for unpacking a fair number of interpersonal frictions.


Eric Berne, the psychiatrist who developed the system of Transactional Analysis (TA) in the 1960s, said that a more mature goal of interaction was intimacy, and the reason many people “play games” is that they feared intimacy. I found his definition of intimacy unsatisfying, however (i.e., “the spontaneous, game-free candidness of an aware person”), because it doesn’t really address the transactions between two people (Berne, 1964, p. 180). On another page (p. 171), Berne noted that intimacy “requires stringent circumspection.” I have found that the key negotiation within that general category of circumspection involves the adjustment of boundaries and access.

In other words, attaining intimacy in a relationship may be aided by bringing more consciousness and explicit level of communication to the process of  negotiating access and boundaries. If one person seeks access, that person can handle being put off or having the quality of that interaction modified when there’s intimacy; in turn, the one who is making a boundary can do it with tact and be willing to keep the deeper relationship going. Alas, few have thought out how this can be achieved. Just having names for the categories is a beginning.

Let’s note that there are certain kinds of boundaries that are a bit more rigid and non-negotiate-able. The ethical constraints on sexuality in therapy and other kinds of dual relationships are often spoken of in terms of boundaries. Similarly, asking a patient for a loan, or feeling obliged to give a loan to patients also relates to the proper boundaries that are needed for therapy to proceed in an optimal fashion. However, I’m referring in this paper to a way to help patients think about their own relationships, and noting that the concepts of access and boundaries can be
most useful in this regard.

A Dynamic Negotiation

A key idea is that boundaries in most instances need not be fixed. “No” often means “not now.” It can also mean “I’m not ready yet, I need more warming-up to the process.” The point here is that the exercise of boundaries need not stop the relationship, but rather modify it. There can be an implicit or, better, explicit invitation to be persistent. “I can’t do that now, but I could be available in a half hour.” Here’s a boundary with an edge of a counter-offer, a bit of access.

In another scenario, the access need to be persistent, even to escalate. “I can’t wait. The house is on fire.” That may trump the refusal! Alternatively, the issue may not be the “when” so much as the “how.” So the negotiation might be, “I want a kiss.” “Not here. How about a hug?”

Neurotic Anticipation

Alas, many people are quite oversensitive to this whole process. Every act of access is loaded, anticipating not just being put off for a moment, but outright rejection. An exercise of boundaries is taken as a rebuff, an occasion of shame, as if the other had said, “What, wonderful me being asked to deal with wretched you? How ludicrous!” Unless clients can become more aware of their tendencies to bring such transferences into the relational field, they’ll play out this little drama in weird ways: Some become under-assertive, so that the other hardly can recognize that some form of access is being sought; some become initially overly aggressive, commencing with a whine, a reproach, or sarcasm, so the other can hardly determine what specifically is being requested. Clients who react with either fight or flight to their own feelings of vulnerability thereby contaminate the interpersonal field and draw to themselves the rejection they fear, not realizing that it is their own mixed messages, their own distorted form of access, that generates the rejection.

Such dynamics operate with many variations. Sometimes it is the person exercising boundaries who over-reacts. Fearing the unreasonableness of others, they fail to exercise tact, and generate a negative cycle, with one person feeling the other is withholding, while the other experiences the one seeking access as wanting too much. (I hate to use the Kleinian psychoanalytic metaphor of “devouring,” because it’s so primal and extreme, but the dynamic relates to this.) Learning that there can be a kind of negotiation, and having the verbal categories of access and boundaries to work with, offers some hope of more mature interactions.

Non-Verbal Communications

A related dimension that overlaps with the dynamics of negotiating access and boundaries is that of the non-verbal style of the people involved (Blatner, 2003, p. 111). Teaching patients that it is important to identify and comment on these dynamics—that, indeed, it is okay even to notice them—is often experienced by patients as a novel insight. Many negotiations are hampered by old body-reaction habits of response, so that it’s not just the words exchanged, but also voice tone, facial expression, and other expressive modes that may be adjusted. For example, when excited, my voice can rise several notes into the treble range. My dear wife finds this tone annoying and distracting, so she can hardly hear whatever content I’m trying to communicate—usually, it seems to me, something positive. We’ve agreed that she can cue me with the phrase, “Talk Texan.” I respond to this amusing reminder by relaxing a bit, allowing my voice to drop several notes, and also slow down into a near-drawl. I repeat what I was saying, and she smiles and more readily hears the intended message.

Warming Up

One of the problems in our culture is the way we are conditioned by our schooling to a writing-based (instead of oral) mode of communication. In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” we may not notice that some of the features of writing, such as the process of editing, succinctness of expression, and getting to the point, may distort the actual nature not only of discourse, but of thinking. In other words, most people don’t have their thoughts nicely packaged, but feel defensive because of this.

The concept of warming-up, used by theatre artists and musicians, should become a more widely recognized norm. Let’s reassure our patients that they don’t have to have their thoughts all lined up, and that, indeed, mixed feelings and seeming inconsistencies is part of what should be expressed in therapy. Such reassurance not only builds the treatment alliance, but it also introduces a norm that partakes of the access and boundaries dynamic.

People can say, “I need to warm up to what you’re asking of me,” or “I need to warm up to what it is I want from you.” That communicates the reality that often the thoughts and feelings involved are still unfolding, and to be asked to be given some time to gradually get used to the ideas, or to gather them together. It’s a statement of slight vulnerability that also takes the other person off the defensive a bit. Talking about warming-up allows both partners to maneuver and clarify their own readiness for some idea or action. Like non-verbal communication, the inclusion of this principle also facilitates the dynamics of access negotiating with boundaries.

Rejection and Vulnerability

One of the common problems many patients exhibit in psychotherapy is what I call an “allergy” to shame. They fear rejection and the implication that the rejection is deserved—it’s an element in a complex of vulnerability. Often this complex is pre-verbal in nature. Indeed, many people tend to carry forward a childish either-or attitudinal and reaction pattern: Others are either nurturing or rejecting.  Again, this is largely unconscious.

Patients with this complex perceive any hesitation or lack of obvious reciprocity as a rejection by one who is choosing to do so from a position of power. That the other is a bit confused, unclear as to what is being asked, willing but just not yet—such intermediate states of mind are almost inconceivable. When feeling vulnerable, the brain’s limbic system is aroused, the person tends to shift into fight-flight or dependency mode, and the reactions evoked may be a little extreme, which often inhibits the negotiation process. The terms “access” and “boundaries” become code words, cues to inviting the insertion of some neocortical reflective consciousness into this low-grade emotional hijacking (Goleman, emotional intelligence).

Patients can learn about and be helped to practice noticing the big difference between “No, I don’t want a relationship with you” and “I’m just not ready to do that interaction with you yet.” Other statements that all-too-often never get a chance to be spoken out loud include, “Warm me up a bit to this topic,” “Tell me more about what exactly you are wanting me to do,” “Is this an emergency or can it wait a few minutes or hours?”

Practicing Access and Boundaries

In turn, the exercise of access is also a complex skill set: How one seeks access is all-too-often fraught with deep conflict and unconscious associations and maneuvers. Some people speak softly, or with an irritating whine in their voice. Some begin with an accusation or reproach, almost expecting a rebuff. Many are vague, indirect. Most have the fantasy that the other person “should” know what is being talked about, and any questions the other asks may be perceived as evasive rather than authentic and reasonable requests for clarification. In other words, if the skills of access are under-developed, the activity of access is liable to be primitive and may evoke boundary-making behavior that corresponds with the negative or mixed anticipations. In other words, people sometimes unconsciously set themselves up for the rejection they fear, and, alas, neither party really understands the basis of the friction.

Unacquainted with boundary making, one may regress to fairly primitive responses, learned in childhood, when challenged with any request for access. We learned to say “No!” around age two, and some seem not to have learned how to move much beyond that. The point here is that there are many possible ways of making boundaries that can be diplomatic, tactful, kind, and more mature. And yet there are also many people who, sadly, have never seen such behaviors modeled in relationships!

So talking about boundaries and access seems to me to be as basic as talking about basic manners and courtesies. I envision therapists role training their clients to practice saying things like, “I’d like to gain access to your time in the next few hours. When do you think that would be convenient for you?”  “I’m making a boundary to stay focused on what I’ve been doing, but I’ll be able to break away and would like to chat with you in about half an hour.”

Many frictions that arise in relationships have this problem as a factor. Not infrequently, one person is still smarting from the feeling of having been rebuffed in some way, and the other person may not even be aware of having done this, much less wanting to.

Nonverbal communications is another dimension of relationships that overlaps with this topic. Often our body-mind expresses our feelings, but such expressions may be unclear, mixed with other issues. Sometimes indigestion can mask as irritation, so it’s good to be able to comment on facial expressions or voice tone and have the other person feel free to clarify and correct: “No, I’m not annoyed with you, but I am generally feeling on edge because I don’t feel well.”

A key concept in this regard is “checking out.” The term, “reality testing” is sometimes used in psychiatry to note the degree to which patients with mental illness are psychotic—in a sense, that term refers to this dissociation of mind and reality. That’s just a rather gross dynamic, though; the ironic thing is that most normal people fail to check out the reality of their impressions, perceptions, and understandings when it comes to interpreting others’ behavior. It’s not “grossly” psychotic, but it would be better if they would test their reality, check out whether what they thought was hate or love, arrogant dismissal or weak submission or any other quality was, in fact, what the other person really intended to communicate. Needless to say, this lack of reality testing at a subtle level also is what accounts for a good deal of transference in relationships.

Checking out perceptions is also a sub-type of access. A measure of persistence, tactfully applied, is part of maturity: If you want the other’s attention and you don’t get it with your first attempt, how about asking for it more clearly, and asking further when the other person might be comfortable giving it to you? (I need to repeat that very often people who think they are exercising access, asking for something, communicating some reaching-out, may in fact be doing so in such a low-key, indirect, soft-spoken, or veiled fashion that most others might miss the cues!)

Another related dynamic is a range of behaviors that relate to self-assertion, intensifying either seeking access or boundary making (Blatner, 2005). The dynamics of expressing anger in a modulated fashion overlap with self-assertion and boundary-making. The point to be noted is that there are also more modest, non-emotional levels in which either seeking access or making boundaries can be expressed with varying degrees of firmness and insistence. The key here is the need to move from one level to the next gradually, and it should be noted that many people do not seem to recognize or follow this principle. Faced with any degree of persistence, and sometimes right off the bat, the person either seeking access or wanting to make a boundary might severely over-react, expressing anger, reproach, threat. When either party escalates more than one level at a time, the other party is liable to experience it as an assault: “Hey, you don’t need to be so angry, I didn’t do anything to deserve that level of emotion!” Again, more often than not, these transactions go on at an almost sub-conscious level, in the sense that the people involved don’t understand the basic principles of ordinary interpersonal negotiations.

Why does it have to be so hard? Why do I have to work at being clear? You should be more sensitive! It’s not fair. Such attitudes are prevalent just beneath the surface, and most people aren’t aware of their childish expectations that relationships should just work well. If there is friction, since in my mind it seems that my intentions are good—at least at first—I get to feel unjustly treated, you must be trying to make me mad, you are being mean—and this in turn justifies my being mean back to you. We might expect this little dynamic as unfortunate but not implausible when exhibited by a six-year-old. Alas, although a bit disguised by rationalizations, excuses, and justifications, this basic dynamic often remains in the repertoire of many adults.

The truth is that negotiations require clarification, and this takes some work. It requires a bit of humility, because we need to recognize that not infrequently, as a graffiti in the 1970s proclaimed, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not at all sure that what you heard was what I meant.” Communications get mucky, they require re-iteration, re-phrasing, questioning and response. My wife and I are pretty good at it and yet not infrequently we get into small muddles. Happily, we recognize these as opportunities to pull back and analyze our miscommunications. We talk about access and boundaries. We laugh at ourselves, knowing that for all our education, communications can be hard, and we can slip into folly.

All this is to note that boundaries and access need to be expressed within contexts. Not, will you pay attention to me, but more specifically, could I have you review our plans for tomorrow? And instead of a simple “no” some response like, “Wait a bit. I’ll be free from what I’m doing in ten minutes.” Then, when they re-engage, the one who made the boundary may shift to doing access: “Okay, now I need some help in warming up to what you see as the question.”


An interesting dynamic I call “shielding” involves being conscious in dealing with people whom one finds difficult, toxic, excessively demanding, brittle, draining, or in other ways not easily related to. It is the opposite of being relatively relaxed and spontaneous. There are those with whom one has good rapport, and with whom one can exercise the skills of access and boundaries easily; if a miscommunication occurs, it can be re-negotiated easily. On the other hand, there are relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, with whom one needs to exercise extra levels of tact and diplomacy. Everything said about boundaries and access must be done somewhat more carefully, because mis-communications are more difficult to rectify.

Shielding involves a withdrawal of our own tendencies to want to feel free to express ourselves, expecting the other will be mature enough to relate to any mistakes we make. It takes a bit of courage—and sometimes a bit of grief—to recognize that with some people, spontaneity is not really possible. If a relatively good or at least simply cordial or collaborative relationship is desired, extra care must be taken in the management of communications.

Addressing Transference

While not wanting to overstate my case—transference being a vast and pervasive, many-dimensional dynamic—, at least part of the problem with transference is that most clients have never learned how to feel even modestly empowered when dealing with those from whom they seek help. I suggest here that the lack of knowledge of the concepts of access and boundaries, and the lack of knowing that the therapist will abide by the application of these skills, accounts for a fair amount of not-entirely-unrealistic transference! On the other hand, by making these issues more transparent, the therapist reduces unnecessary degrees of transference. There will still be enough going on for further exploration! I write more about this dynamic in a paper on my website called “Mutuality in Psychotherapy” (Blatner, 2002).


The concepts of “access” and “boundaries” offer great practical value in helping clients to become more aware of the dynamics and issues involved in their relationships with others. These concepts can be brought into use as a practical medium for negotiating a wide range of minor fluctuations in relationships. They also address a portion of the dynamics of transference in therapy. The field may yet be refined further, and overlaps with many other approaches that are weaving linguistics, semantics, and other insights from related fields into our work.

The proposal here is to include this topic in any program of social and emotional learning, in group therapy—assuming some groups can include a psycho-educational component. (I think there is a place for some information-giving in therapy. The idea that patients at some level know everything they need is a romantic cliche that has no experimental support. In fact, in my experience, at least a third of the source of difficulty in most clients’ lives rests on sheer ignorance of basic principles of psychology or worse, believing in cultural norms and “common sense” attitudes that are profoundly misleading.)


Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: the psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove.

Blatner, A. (1985). Access and boundaries (Chapter 10, pp. 103 - 115). In: Creating your living: applications of psychodramatic methods in everyday life. San Marcos, TX: Author.

Blatner, A. (2002). Mutuality in Psychotherapy. Retrieved from website September 20, 2007:

Blatner, A. (2003). “Not mere players”: psychodrama applications in everyday life (Chapter 7). In: J. Gershoni (Ed.), Psychodrama in the 21st Century. New York: Springer.

Blatner, A. (2005). Learning to use anger constructively.  Retrieved from website January 27, 2010: